Helen Achilleos explains how to recognise the signs and offers advice on dealing with a workplace bully

We all know that there are bullies at school. I bet you can still remember who they are from when you were growing up. And now if you’re a parent, you likely have taught your children what to do if someone tries to bully them. Unfortunately, bullies don’t go away once we graduate and many of us have been bullied at our workplace. But that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it.

Workplace bullying is well known, well defined, but is not well understood. Bullying can be hard for employers to recognize because the bullying often is done in subtle ways or staff may think it’s part of the ‘culture’ of the workplace.

Bullying is often more subtle and over a long period of time and the person being bullied may not realize they are being bullied for weeks or even months. Few people recognize bullying in the initial stages.

What is bullying?

Bullying is an emotional and psychological assault where a hostile environment is created through abuse and intimidation. A bully is someone who knowingly/intentionally abuses the rights of others to gain control of the situation and the individuals involved. The bully is about control and abuse of power and the Target is perceived as a threat.

It comprises repeated acts over a period of time that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. The bully begins a campaign of nitpicking, criticism, and personal insults often done behind closed doors and in subtle ways. The target is singled out and treated differently.

You may notice some incidents at work: probably nothing major, no big scenes, just ‘stuff’ that happens. Bullying is often subtle and tends to be an accumulation of many SMALL incidents over a long period of time. Each incident tends to be trivial, and on its own and out of context does not constitute an offence or grounds for disciplinary or grievance action. As the bullying escalates the ‘incidents’ at work may either intensify (be more powerful and ‘upfront’) or multiply (be more numerous).

In many cases, it is the bully’s ability to create the illusion that he or she has the support of the majority present that instils the fear of ‘speaking out’ in protestation of the bullying activities.

Bullies tend to be driven by their own fears and insecurities, they have such low self esteem and they crave power and control so are often drawn to positions of authority or supervision or a certain level of seniority over other employees which they can then use this perceived power.

A target is an individual who is selected as an object towards which the Workplace Bully can direct an unrelenting stream of harm – mainly subtle and some obvious – in order to reduce the Target’s performance and self-esteem while increasing the workplace bully’s own view of her/his own self-importance.

Bullying can take many forms and some examples are :

  • Hostile verbal abuse – belittled, degraded, demeaned, ridiculed, patronised, subject to disparaging remarks, taunted and teased where the intention is to embarrass and humiliate
  • Repeated sarcastic remarks or sarcastic put downs concealed as humour
    Isolated and excluded from what’s happening (this makes people more vulnerable and easier to control) and encourages others to do the same
  • Psychological harassment – Intimidation and damaging the self esteem of others
  • Giving employees impossible assignments
  • Deliberately withholding information that is vital for effective work performance,
  • Giving people the “silent” treatment’ and/or avoids eye contact (always an indicator of an abusive relationship);
  • Uses gossip, Spreads malicious rumours
  • Undermined, especially in front of others; false concerns are raised, or doubts are expressed over a person’s performance or standard of work – however, the doubts lack substantive and quantifiable evidence
    forever subject to nit-picking and trivial fault-finding (the triviality is the giveaway)
  • Ignored, sidelined, marginalised, ostracised
  • Do not have a clear job description, the bully often deliberately makes the person’s role unclear
    facing unjustified disciplinary action or complaints on trivial matters

How is workplace bullying different from working with difficult people?

Bullying is deliberate, not accidental

Bullying is intimidation with intent.

Bullying results in gratification for the bully, where the bully can feel some sense of superiority

Bullying is NOT a relationship issue or a conflict that both parties have contributed to in some way. It is entirely an issue of inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Tough managers are fair, just, strong and results-driven – not control-driven.

Bullying is not “tough” management; it is illegitimate behaviour, unrelated to accomplishing productive work, and undermines legitimate business interests when bullies’ personal agendas take precedence over work itself.

When good-natured ribbing turns ugly it is one of the subtle ways a bully can use to create distress. When the joke is no longer funny and causes obvious pain yet they persist while knowing full well the pain they are causing, The bully will pretend to not realize the impact they are having and will joke with co-workers about how the target just can’t take a joke and has no sense of humour. In this way, the bully begins to sow seeds in the minds of co-workers that the target is touchy, thin-skinned, and even mentally unbalanced.

Understand the Stages of the Process

No two cases are alike, but bullying typically proceeds from subtle, informal techniques of humiliation and exclusion to overt and formal measures. Five stages are commonly

1. Avoidance and ostracisation of the target.
2. Petty harassment: making the target’s life difficult.
3. A critical incident that triggers formal sanctions: “something has to be done.”
4. Aftermath of the incident: hearings, appeals, mediation.
5. Elimination: target quits, retires, is fired

How it feels to be bullied

Bullying can be likened to rape (it’s psychological and emotional rape because of its intrusive and violational nature) and grievance procedures force the victim of this rape to have to relive the trauma repeatedly as they try to convince.

Victims develop a change in their behaviour. Physical problems – especially the lack of a good night’s sleep – begin to cause emotional problems. How chatty and friendly will you feel with only a few hours of sleep a night? As you experience a loss of confidence and self-esteem you tend to become emotionally drained, forgetful, and clumsy. You find yourself to be short-tempered, over-emotional and near to tears.

You begin to dread going to work even though the actual work is ok. You are quieter than you normally are, choosing silence rather than giving the bully a reason to have a go at you.

When you feel like you are walking on eggshells around the bully, choose your words carefully and try to get on with the bully. You lack your normal degree of self-confidence – at work and home

You obsess over your job performance. Anger, self-criticism, negativity, and exploding easily at inconsequential things, which can further aggravate the situation. Some of what you have been falsely accused of doing (or not doing) at work may become almost accurate.

Bullying can make a good employee look like a bad employee when the emotional toll causes your performance to deteriorate. Sadly, you cannot defeat a workplace bully if you are not performing your job well.

One of the major mistakes employers make is to imply that the target is in some way responsible for the situation. They can do this by asking the target whether he or she did anything to provoke the bullying or what they might do to resolve the situation, reinforcing the belief that in some way the victim was at fault rather than acknowledging that bullying is inappropriate workplace behaviour.

A major issue seems to be that the targets – individuals who are bullied – are not believed. Responses from colleagues or senior management are often one of disbelief. Others may not have the same relationship with the bully as the one who is being bullied, or they may not find the behaviour so disturbing. Or they may not know what to do or how to help or don’t particularly ‘like’ the person who is having trouble and therefore are not really interested

Bullies have the ability to create the illusion that they have the support of the majority which instils the fear of ‘speaking out’ in protestation of the bullying activities.

The Long-Term Effects of being bullied

When targets experience workplace bullying they feel under threat. An intense stress reaction occurs in response to this aggressive behaviour. Target’s bodies start to produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare targets to rally to protect themselves by either confronting, escaping or becoming immobilized in the face of the stressor also known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

When targets can’t escape the chronic stress of repeated bullying, they cannot discharge that tension and rebound physically or psychologically. Stress then gets ‘trapped’ in their bodies, and targets experience that stress as trauma-like symptoms such as intense fear, anxiety, depression, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, loss of confidence and low self-worth.

You begin to isolate yourself and this is when the bully gains real power over you. Isolation is the bully’s most powerful and most harmful weapon as it cuts you off from any source of support.

Some targets of bullying also begin to lose perspective and come to believe that they somehow invited or deserve this abuse. Many targets of bullying are unaware of the extent of their psychological distress or wait until their symptoms become severe before seeking help.

Until there is a moment of enlightenment that it is NOT something you have done can a target finally stand up for themselves and take back control.

Why Me?

The profile of a target is often someone you wouldn’t expect to be bullied, they are typically good at their jobs, competent, committed, showing independence of thought or deed, a strong well-defined set of values which you are unwilling to compromise or abandon.

An employee under attack is typically singled out for her strengths, not her weaknesses. One who has something that the bully lacks – jealousy of relationships and perceived exclusion therefrom and envy of talents, abilities, circumstances or possessions are strong motivators of bullying. The workplace bully is a petty little power-tripper which explains why bullies pick on employees who are good at their job and become resentful when others get more attention for their competence and achievements than themselves.

Mediation is often ineffective because it focuses on relationship issues, and bullying is NOT a relationship issue. This is evidenced by the fact that once the target is eliminated, the bully finds another target to take his/her place.

Bullies can appear supportive one moment, then vindictive the next.

Recognise the Bully – Know your enemy

Understanding the profile of a workplace bully is the first fundamental step in dealing with a workplace bully effectively.

Despite the facade that such people put up, bullies have low self-confidence and low self-esteem, and thus feel insecure. The things a workplace bully values the most is power and status and are preoccupied with dominating other people and the workplace bully goes to wage war on anyone they view as being a threat. Bullies seethe with resentment and anger and the conduits for release of this inner anger are jealousy and envy.

The target is seen as a threat who must first be controlled and subjugated, and if that doesn’t work, …eliminated. In most cases, the bullying follows a two-phase procedure. Phase one is control and subjugation through intimidation and isolation of the target. When this fails, phase two is the elimination of the target.

Tactics used by the Bully


The target, who may have taken months to reach this stage, is provoked into an angry and emotional outburst after which the bully says simply “There, I told you s/he was like that”.


A bully will deflect questions on their behaviour with counterattacks, counter-criticism or counter-allegation, to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour. This tactic puts the focus back onto the target making them look like the villain.


This is the most emotionally painful experience a mentally healthy person can endure and is the primary tactic used. It is the bully’s most powerful and most harmful weapon. The bully can deceive management and HR by appearing charming and helpful while the victim appears emotional and angry not realising this is the release of pent-up anger as a result of the constant hypervigilance of not knowing when the bully is about to strike again.


This is one of the mechanisms by which abusers control their targets. By tapping into and obtaining an inappropriate release of pent-up anger the bully plays their master stroke and casts their victim as a villain.

The Only Way to Stop A Serial Bully is Exposure

What bullies fear most is the exposure of their inadequacy and being called publicly to account for their behaviour and its consequences.

Recognizing and labelling bullies as bullies will reinforce your identification of who’s the problem – they are.

Recognize that bullying is about control, and therefore has nothing to do with your performance.

Shine a light on their behaviour. Get allies; don’t isolate yourself.

Ways to Respond if You’re Being Bullied at Work

Just because you are being targeted by a workplace bully doesn’t mean you are helpless. There are steps you can take to stop this form of harassment. Here are a few suggestions:

Keep a written account of every time you are bullied

Provide specifics like who, where, when and how. This documentation will demonstrate that these aren’t isolated incidents and that this harassment has been ongoing. The written details also make it easier to report the bullying in an objective, rational manner so there is no room for anyone to question the validity of the report.

Report the bullying to your supervisor

If your supervisor is the bully, report the bullying to your supervisor’s boss. While I know this can be uncomfortable, bullying is a form of harassment that needs to be reported. And depending on the level of harassment, there could be grounds for legal charges to be made. Either way, this unacceptable behaviour needs to be brought to the attention of others who can successfully intervene.

Avoid the bully when possible

While I understand you can’t skip staff meetings, you can choose to sit away from the bully in the meeting and eat your lunch at a different time and place. I am not recommending this because I believe you need to hide and run away from the bully, but because you will be bullied less if the opportunity doesn’t present itself.

Seek out company

When it’s not possible to avoid the bully, do what you can to walk with a colleague to meetings, lunch and other workplace settings. This is because you are less likely to be bullied when you are with someone else.

Display confidence

Walk confidently, with your head up, to convey self-confidence because bullies target those they think are weaker. If the bully believes you are on equal footing, she is less likely to target you.

Pay attention to your needs

Pay attention to how you’re sleeping, eating, feeling and functioning at work. If you notice changes in any of these areas, I recommend contacting your Employee Assistance Program to discuss the situation or seeing an outside therapist.

Bullies Do What They Do Because They Can!

Remember, bullies will often bully because they believe they can get away with it.

Employers have a duty of care towards staff that goes beyond their physical safety while they are at work. Workplace Bullying and harassment usually leads to stress related harm and, in the UK,  is now covered under the Health & Safety Employment Act.

Helen Achilleos has over 20 years' of senior professional administration experience across a variety of sectors including Engineering, Tourism, IT and Telecommunications and has worked for a number of high profile companies in New Zealand. Helen is ... (Read More)

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